There Were Three Brothers And…

Genealogy newcomers often trip over the “three brothers” story. It has been repeated thousands of times. I have yet to see one instance in which it is accurate.

The story always starts with something like this:

There were three brothers who immigrated to America. One went north, one went south, and one headed west, never to be heard from again.

It is an interesting story, and you might almost believe it. After all, how else can you explain the fact that the same surname pops up in so many places?

What fascinates me is that there are always three brothers, never two or four or five or six. And didn’t they have any sisters? Why did they go in three different directions? Couldn’t two of them go someplace together while the third struck out on his own? Why does each one take a different trip?

An examination of thousands of immigration and naturalization records shows that brothers usually remained close-knit and usually resided near each other after immigration. The “three brothers” myth apparently was invented and repeated by lazy genealogists who could not be bothered to find the truth. It is a poor excuse for why the same surname appears in multiple locations.

When searching for surnames in immigration records, you normally will find more than one immigrant of the name. In many cases, each immigrant did not know the others and moved to wherever he pleased. Later genealogists tried to justify the appearance of one surname in multiple locations and assumed something that is not documented in any records.

Be wary of the three brothers myth. You always want to confirm such claims to establish that indeed there were three brothers instead of three unrelated men with the same last name. Yes, someplace in history there probably were three brothers somewhere who split up and went separate ways. But 99.9% of the “three brothers” stories you will hear are fictitious.

16 Comments

I did find a set in Sonora MZ – the Lujan bothers. And, I think in VA in the 1600’s were the Yancey brothers.

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Once upon a time, there were three brothers, John, Fred and Edwin. They were the middle children of 6 sons and 2 daughters. All three were tin miners in Cornwall, England, and had worked in the mines since childhood.

John was the eldest and as soon as he came of age, he left home and went to Canada, where he married, established a family, and worked in the iron mines of Ontario. When the Lake Superior Copper mines were opened in the Kaweenah Peninsula of Michigan, the mining companies advertised for miners from Cornwall to come and work there. Because of their knowledge of hard-rock mining they would have very good jobs with high pay and be leaders in the mines. John took his family there and went to work in the Minnesota Mines at Rockland. I’m not sure of the date but it was between July 1856 and August 1858, based on the birthplaces of his children.

John did very well. Within a short time, he wrote to Fred and Edwin to come and join him there. Fred was very skilled and had become an engine driver at the copper mine at St. Ives. I don’t know if they came on the same ship or the date they arrived. Fred had to have come just before the 1860 census was taken. I do find all three brothers in Rockland, Michigan in the 1860 census. Edwin was unmarried. Fred evidently left a pregnant wife, a son and daughter in England. Fred’s second son was born in Cornwall in January 1861. In 1859, John filed his intention of becoming an American citizen. That never happened.

On 11 July 1861, there was an accident in the Rockland Mine. Timbers in the mine fell and Fred was killed. Very quickly all three brothers left Michigan. John went back to his old job in Ontario, Canada. Fred’s widow took her three children to Ashtabula, Ohio. I don’t know why they went there. So far as I know they were the first of the family to go there.
Edwin “disappeared”. We find him at home with his parents in the April 1861 Census, so he must have made a quick trip home before the accident. I think I may have found him back in the U.S. in 1865 in Massachusetts, where Edwin was married. I don’t have enough information to be sure this is our Edwin. We also have a possible death date of 1924 in New Jersey.

So this case of three brothers was solid records until the death of Fred. Then all three dispersed in many directions.

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In my family, there were five sibs that ended up in four different states.
Beware of research platitudes.

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My “three brothers” myth involves one who stayed in Wales, one who emigrated to E Ohio (my ancestor) and one who went W and founded a major W coast university that bears his son’s name.
I have found several siblings of my ancestor who stayed in Wales – both brothers & sisters – and some who emigrated elsewhere (including Australia). But NOT the university-founder.
Such is life.
Interesting to read others’ “three brothers” stories.

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Ann Freehafer Andersen May 1, 2020 at 9:05 am

My three brother arrived in America together in 1772 on the ship Hope. Two of them, Johannes Frickhöffer/Freehafer and Jost Frickhöffer/Freehafer stayed in the Philadelphia/New Jersey area and my ancestor, Christian Frickhöffer was indentured to Edward Shippen, father of Peggy Shippen of “Hamilton” fame. Edward Shippen called Christian a “chunky fellow”. He married a Scots-Irish lady, Mary Whitehill. They had nine children and he died in the Alms House in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1825.

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Well, I have one of those “five brothers” stories that’s been handed down. It seems these five brothers came over to the colonies from the Isle of Mann in the mid-18th Century. So far, I have been unable to conclusively locate one of these brothers from immigration records. You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to find a grouping like this, so perhaps it is all fable. Very interesting article!

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Francis, Charles, and James Sharratt came to the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin area in the 1860’s and stayed there. Eventually, some of their children moved to Minnesota. While three brothers came to America, they were supposedly the youngest of a family of fifteen from Staffordshire,

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My husband’s great grandfather traveled from Hanover, with his 2 brothers, on the same ship in 1866. They settled in the same county in Pennsylvania. The family was apparently close and did not move away. They were also joined soon after by 2 sisters who settled in the same general area. My husband knew much about his family and their descendants. The surname is unusual and so anyone of our surname in the eastern part of the U.S. is apparently related, at least as far as I can find out. There are some in other locations that I have not been able to tie in, but then I’ve only been at this hobby for 47 years!
Linda Waha
Erie, PA

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My family legend is the “4 Tyler Brothers” who came “just after the Mayflower”. As I’ve researched, there is a kernel of truth in there. There are several Tyler families that came over during the 1600’s and several books written about these ‘branches’. There has been no proof that these ‘branches’ are connected and most of the books note that fact. I’m a descendant of the “Job Tyler” line.

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Paula Kelley Ward May 1, 2020 at 2:16 pm

I’ve often asked a similar question about Native American ancestry. Why is it that we never hear a story about a male Native American ancestor? It’s always a woman, or “Indian Princess” which, of course, raises a flag immediately since the Native Americans had no royalty. But a male? No stories? Wonder why.

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My husband’s grandfather and his two brothers immigrated from Slovakia when it was still considered to be the Austro-Hungarian empire. All three settled in western Pennsylvania, worked in the coal mines, and between them, raised 34 children. It’s not really a myth.

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Yep, my great-grandfather and his two brothers, ok, and two sisters and their parents, came to the US between 1881 and 1884 from, yes, Budapest. But there were three brothers. Really. One stayed in NY and the other two and the rest of the family went to Chicago. I’m from the one who stayed in NY.

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Barbara J McDonald May 1, 2020 at 8:12 pm

My family’s story involved 7 brothers, but the only branch i could find that fits would include the daughters or brothers-in-law. They were born in NY, went to WI as a family, then after the Civil War they went to Illinois, Nebraska (3), Wyoming, Colorado and California.

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My “UK to PA” relatives were four married Gibson sisters and their unmarried brother, who are believed to have moved from Lanarkshire to the Pittsburgh area around the 1840s. Not all directly – at least one stayed in NY long enough to produce a child there.
The brother of the five also headed west but got distracted in Newfoundland, possibly by a pretty girl who had also been born in Scotland. They married. Their youngest child, Marion Gibson, was born on the farm in Newfoundland but found her way back to Scotland where she married my father’s father’s father. Their children were born in Scotland but the family moved to New Zealand in the 1880s and have dozens of descendants, most still in NZ.
By some miracle, I found an unsigned letter written in the middle of last century from one of the American relatives setting out most of the names of the Gibson sisters and their children and grandchildren – it had presumably been sent to one of my great-aunts and passed on to her niece then to one of my aunts. Without that letter I would not have had any idea that I had dozens of American relatives (most of whom stayed in PA or at least had their bodies sent back there for burial). I have now made contact with a few of the living ones from more than one branch. But I can’t trace the Browns – eleven children of the two sons of Agnes Gibson and John Brown (who were married in Lesmahagow in 1824). No matching families in any US census. Maybe they went to Canada or back to Scotland? Maybe the letter-writer was wrong about them even reaching Pennsylvania a century before? He or she made other “errors” not matching official records. Maybe parish registers or Find A Grave will reveal the Browns somewhere one day. Three brothers? I can’t find even those two!

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I have a three sibling story. My grandmother and her brother and sister immigrated to the Boston MA from Newfoundland in the late 1890s. They came about a year apart. My grandmother and her brother ended up living in Cambridge (next to Boston) and the sister lived in Watertown which is next to Cambridge. The two sisters had cottages on adjoining street near a beach in New Hampshire and I have many pictures of the brother and family at my grandparents cottage in the 30s and 40s.

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Three brothers..All three married with children. Two stayed in Iowa, one went West and was never heard from again. Until…He was discovered in the adjoining state, Minnesota with a new wife and children. Of course the old wife and children were still home wondering..whatever happened to Dad?

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